South of the Border, owned and operated for years by Alan Schafer, began as the South of the Border Beer Depot. According to Nicole King, a professor at the University of Maryland-Baltimore County who has written about the creation of what is known as “S.O.B.”, Alan and his father Samuel had a successful beer distribution company and because they were Jews, could avoid the cultural stigma associated with beer sales that Baptists and other religious conservatives could not. Over the years, especially after the passage of the Interstate Highway Act of 1956, South of the Border grew from beer depot into a souvenir shop to catch the traffic now going up and down I-95.(See King’s article “Behind the Sombrero: Identity and Power at South of the Border, 1949-2001,” in Dixie Emporium: Tourism, Foodways, and Consumerism in the American South, edited by Anthony Stanonis).
What you might not know and what I learned recently through a fellow historian and Facebook friend is that our current Federal Reserve chairman, Ben Bernanke, worked as a waiter one summer at South of the Border. This must certainly be a feather in his sombrero and should have brought him more respect from Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry, who accused his fellow southerner of “treason.” That’s right. Fellow southerner. Bernanke didn’t just work at S.O.B., he is originally from Dillon, South Carolina. Take that, Senor Perry.
South of the Border is complex, just as complex as Alan Schafer, who died in 2001. As King explains, the roadside attraction “memorializes the African American experience by selling ‘authentic souvenirs’ from Africa in a Mexican-themed tourist spot created by a progressive Jewish man in the predominantly Anglo, conservative, and Protestant American South.” And that’s just for starters.
All this is to say S.O.B. is a fascinating place. And it just became more fascinating to me, now that I know that Ben Bernanke, the man who can make economic markets go up or down whenever he speaks, once worked under the big sombrero.